STRAFFAN, Ireland – Shane Lowry needs a good week at the Irish Open to justify being selected for the Ryder Cup.
Adrian Meronk wants someone to prove European captain Luke Donald wrong when he left him out of the team.
Both got off to a good start on Thursday.
Lowry made seven birdies and shot a 4-under 68 at The K Club to stay three shots off the lead of Shubhankar Sharma of India after the first round of the DP World Tour event.
Insulted at being overlooked by Anders, Meronk went birdie-birdie and shot 69 in a solid start to his title defense.
On a day when Rory McIlroy – the big draw this week along with home favorite Lowry – felt the crowd’s love and also shot 69, Sharma produced a bogey-free round of 65 in sweltering afternoon conditions to finish with a one-stroke lead over five players: the Englishmen Jordan Smith and Ross Fisher, Marcel Schneider from Germany, Kristian Krogh Johannessen of Norway and 52-year-old Dane Thomas Bjorn, who knows all about the joy and pain of Ryder Cup selection.
McIlroy, who has battled a poor back, is four off the early lead at The K Club.
Bjorn was the winning Ryder Cup captain of Le Golf National in 2018, who 12 years earlier called Ian Woosnam “the most pathetic captain I’ve ever seen” after he was snubbed for selection for the 2006 event at The K Club.
An elder statesman on the European Tour, Bjorn has not played competitively since June due to collarbone and lower back problems, missed the cut in his last five events and has a current world ranking of No. 1,232. Still, he showed he can still mix it with some of the best by making seven birdies along with a single bogey on his final hole – the ninth – after missing the green with his approach and also a couple of putts from 11 feet.
“I said to my caddy this morning when we went to the first tee, ‘let’s try and see if we can break 90,'” Bjorn said. “It was that kind of day. I came here with no expectations and it just shows how silly this game can be.”
Sharma went one better than Bjørn, boosted by a birdie-birdie-eagle run from his seventh hole – the 16th – after starting on No. 9. The eagle came when he holed out from 104 yards on the par-5 18 .the square.
Lowry, who was an amateur when he won the Irish Open in 2009, was tied for 13th as he looks for a first top-10 finish since the Honda Classic in February to take him to Rome, where he is one of six the captain’s choice.
That he would be selected by Donald was not really up for debate, despite missing the cut in two of his last three starts – including at The Open, which he won in 2019.
However, Lowry said neither the Ryder Cup nor next week’s BMW PGA Championship, where he is the defending champion, was on his mind.
“Take everything else that’s in the next few weeks, it’s a big week for me,” Lowry said. “I want to go out and play well and give myself a chance to win this tournament. It’s only 45 minutes to an hour from where I’m from in Clara. I want people to get on their buses Sunday morning to come and watch me try to win this tournament.
“That’s all I want this week. It has nothing to do with the Ryder Cup or Wentworth next week or anything. This tournament for me is huge. I feel at home here. I live in Florida and I miss home a lot when I’m gone. It’s nice to be back.”
Many thought Meronk would also be in the European squad, but Donald chose Nicolai Højgaard ahead of him in what was likely to be his last call.
Birdies from 6 feet and 22 feet in the first two holes, after starting on No. 10, showed Meronk meant business in the toughest week of his career. He mixed two birdies with two bogeys before hitting an approach to 7 feet at his final hole and draining the birdie putt.
McIlroy birdied his final two holes and said it was “a pretty average day.”
“I didn’t really feel good about anything,” he said. “It’s hard to say I’m rusty when I’ve only had a week off, but I just haven’t had a chance to practice much and I just hit a few loose shots out there.”